From the Collection: Blissymbolics

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Blissymbolics was conceived by Austro-Hungarian expatriate Charles K. Bliss (1897–1985), born Karl Kasiel Blitz to a Jewish family in the town of Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi in modern-day Ukraine). He was introduced to signs and symbols at an early age in the form of circuit diagrams – his father’s many occupations included mechanic and electrician – which he understood immediately as a “logical language”. Bliss (then Blitz) attended the Vienna University of Technology for chemical engineering and went on to become chief of the patent department at the German TV and radio company Telefunken, a career that was cut short in early 1938 when the Third Reich annexed Austria.

Bliss was sent to Dachau concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald, before escaping to England in 1939. The eight-month German bombing offensive against Britain known as The Blitz began only months later, prompting him to change his surname “from the war-like Blitz to the peaceful Bliss”, as he recalled in a taped interview. Bliss fled to Shanghai by way of Canada and Japan, where he was reunited with his wife. Claire, a German Catholic, had used her connections to get Bliss out of Buchenwald, but her relatively privileged status was not enough to spare her a fraught journey to safety across Europe and Asia. Even in Shanghai, the couple was forced into the Hongkew ghetto following the Japanese occupation.

Bliss became enraptured with written Chinese, which he mistook initially for ideograms. (Chinese characters are, in fact, logograms.) Nevertheless, certain Chinese characters have pictographic qualities, and it was the symbol for “man”,  that sparked Bliss’s epiphany. As he learned enough to read Chinese newspaper headlines and shop signage, he soon realized that he was reading the symbols not in Chinese, but in his native German. At the age of 45, Bliss was inspired to develop a non-alphabetic writing system that could be mastered in a short period of time and read by anyone regardless of their spoken language. This work remained the focus of his life, even after he and Claire emigrated to Australia in 1946 and despite the general apathy and indifference with which it was met.

Mr. Symbol Man

Fascinating article about the little-known “language” of Blissymbolics: coming from a similar era and background to Esperanto, Blissymbolics failed even more to gain widespread traction but encompasses some really interesting ideas (about graphic notation and design, about linguistic concepts, about communication theory) that we can still learn from. Read the full article…


pudd /pʊd/ (verb, third-person singular simple present pudds, present participle pudding, simple past pudded, past participle pudd)

  1. (transitive) to cause an observer to interpret meaning where none exists
    “The beauty of the sunset pudds me into believing that it was put there specifically for me to enjoy.”
    “Interpreting the lyrics pudded Dan with ideas far beyond those intended by the songwriter.”

  2. (intransitive) to interpret meaning (esp. into the meaningless)
    “Though I don’t understand your grunting, I pudd that you are angry about something.”
    “Despite the emptiness of her life, Mary was pudding.”

pudd /pʊd/ (noun, pl. pudds)

  1. The meaning or purpose of something, as understood through individual interpretation, without specific indication any such meaning exists.
    “His pudd is that life is for having fun while it lasts.”
    Pudds are easy to find when you’re looking for them.”

You know how in How I Met Your Mother season 5, episode 3 (Robin 101), Ted says “Anything sounds weird if you say it a hundred times,” and proceeds to say the word “bowl” over and over until it begins to lose all significance for him, becoming a meaningless vocalisation? The phenomenon is called semantic satiation, and the other day I experienced something a little like it, and then – as is my way – went one step further.

For some reason – perhaps saturation of the word in my brain that mirrored the saturation of the food in my stomach at and following last weekend’s feast – I lost the meaning to the word “pudding”. I’d stare at it, but it didn’t make any sense – it was just a collection of letters. I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar at some point in your life.

But then an unusual thing happened: my brain began to see it in a different way, almost adding meaning to it. My imagination whirred. The part of my brain responsible for recognising the components of language, which has recently been spoiled by the regularity and predictability of Esperanto, began to see the word “pudding” as the present participle form of a verb, “to pudd”. I pudd, you pudded, we’re pudding, everybody pudds.

There’s no English verb, “to pudd”, that I’m aware of, so I’ve invented one. The definition is based on the experience that lead me to inventing it, and as a result it is at least a little bit recursive. The definition is as above. I’ve invented an accompanying derivative noun, too. I anticipate that the intransitive verb form is the most useful of the three definitions: in fact, I’ll be using it in this very article.

I don’t pudd that I was somehow supposed to do this; that my temporary inability to comprehend a word was destined to have me invent one: and if you’re pudding that right now, you’re mistaken. But if you must find pudd in this whole jolly story, perhaps you can just settle on that I am a fan of language, and at least a little bit eccentric. Isn’t that enough?

Mi Parolas Esperanton! (Apenaŭ)

Antaŭ pluraj semajnoj, mi havis sonĝo. Mi sonĝis de mi parolas Esperanton. Neniu rajtas diri mi ne postiras mia sonĝoj, ĉar mi komencis lerni la lingvo!

(sed mi bezonis vortaron por skribis jenon)

Translation of my very rough-and-ready multilingual work, above: Several weeks ago, I had a dream. I dreamt that I spoke Esperanto. Nobody may say I don’t follow my dreams, because I’ve begun learning the language. (although I required a dictionary to write this)

That’s the short and long of it, really. Thanks to Lernu!‘s online “audiobook”-like tutorials and Project Gutenberg and a half-dozen other sites, I’ve now got a basic grasp of Esperanto. I can say who I am and how I am and ask the same of you, tell you what I do for a living, conjugate a variety of verbs (actually, any verb – the structure of the language is so thoughtfully put-together that the rules for using it are logical and exception-free).

Why am I learning a language that I know no other speakers of? Well, it gives me something new to think about on my lunch breaks, but I’m afraid the best reason is the one detailed (bilingually) above: I dreamt I could, so I wanted to find out if I was able to. I’ve always been particularly bad at picking up human languages (programming languages, by comparison, I’m tend to learn very fast), and as I’m not quite mad enough yet to learn Lojban, I guess Esperanto‘s the next-best thing.